Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Seven Elements of Wiggins' Training: Part 4

My brother made a comment about my previous post that leads well into my next post about Wiggins.  Here's what he wrote:
I remember Floyd saying that everyone was debating volume versus intensity, when the solution was simple: both. Sounds like Wiggins' philosophy too. Lots of volume, incredible amounts of time at race pace and beyond. (He says training is *harder* than racing!) No downtime, basically ever. Throw in plyo, weights, altitude, hell, throw in coming-of-age death matches with the local tribes. It's only tough "mentally".

I don't buy it. The thing is, the reason you typically have to choose between volume and intensity is that REST is also part of the equation, and you need that on both micro and macro cycles. Unless you're on the right drug protocols, something else the swimmers really had worked out.

If you read Friel, he says that most cyclists come to him already training *too much*, afflicted with chronic respiratory infections and fatigue, and they improve with structured training because it allows them enough rest to really hit their intensity goals. How to square that with the philosophy of more of everything all the time: volume, intensity, weights, plyo?
I'll call my brother's idea here the sad law of limited training load.  The sad law is simply a statement of the limits of human endeavor.  We are not infinitely pliant.   There is a limit to how much and what kind of training--that is, what Friel calls load--benefits the body.  Training load unfortunately (rather, fortunately for our families and jobs) does not have constant rate of correlation with performance improvement.  Increasing training load brings marginal improvement that looks something like this:

The idea is that you increase load, at first you see large marginal gains (moving right and up).  For every extra hour you spend on the bike, you might see an extra 10 watts on your FTP.  This is why Cat 4 and 5 cyclists are often the most enthusiastic cyclists--they see huge improvements!  They keep training harder, and they keep getting faster!

But at some point--and those of us with unlimited time and limited social lives are searching for this point--you hit your ideal training load point.  After that ideal point you begin to experience marginal losses; i.e., once you've passed the ideal training load, for every additional hour you spend on the bike you experience a loss of power.

My brother's theme, if I get it right, goes further in stating that, whether you're riding hard or riding often, you have limits.  You can't just go hard and go foreover.  That would lead to injury.

The curve you see below illustrates this notion.  It's called, in economics, a production possibilities curve, and it's used to explain tradeoffs in factory production, but it's also useful for understanding any limited choice--and in life, there are a lot of dismal trade-off choices one must make.  Well, my brother says, in training to be fast, you have a limited amount of load you should place on your body if you want to improve:  you can load it with several short, intense workouts, or you can load it with some long, less intense workouts, but at some point you'll only injure yourself (see below).  The sad law...

There's no question that the sad law exists, and that it is a huge bummer, not only for those of us addicted to cycling, but because it applies to all areas of human improvement.  The Armstrong EPO era was wonderful, in part, because it not only stretched what seemed possible within the confines of the sad law, it also raised the possibility that the sad law had been torn up and perhaps abandoned.  Sadly, performance enhancing drugs and sublimity are ghastly opposites, but easily mistaken.

On the other hand, although we can say that it exists, we can't say where or when it comes into effect.  This uncertainty is, I think, a wonderful thing.  It means that we can always have hope for improvement, even if only a fool's hope.

I don't think this is lame.  In fact, I've lately cast aside some of my more pessimistic feelings about the sad law.  I've had questions.  Questions such as...

  • Isn't it strange how the extremely obese develop massively strong legs?  
  • How is it that Sherpas develop an incredible tolerance for altitude by living at altitude (without resting)?  
  • Why do gymnasts develop incredible strength by placing constant load, without rest, on their bodies? 
  • Isn't it interesting how anthropologists have discovered the world's largest human arm bones in pre-historic Aleuts whose constant paddling (and, perhaps, constant diet of pure fat and meat) gave them far stronger torsos than any living humans)?   

And I've also gone back to the basics.  Statistically, time spent on the bike remains the single biggest factor in improvement.  All GC guys spend tons of time on the bike.  Unless you're already averaging 20 hours a week, ride more--you'll probably get faster.

Because cyclists, even the most casual Cat 5s, do spend so much time on the bike there are an awful lot of different things we can do on the bike during the time we have. Take something like the 100m dash; top sprinters often spend more time doing supplementary exercises than sprinting.  That's because sprinting places a huge load on the body.  Cycling is far less taxing.  When you turn the pedals 10,000 times a week, how you turn those pedals is hugely relevant to your progress.

This gets at my point about Wiggins.  The biggest difference between Wiggins and his competitors, I'm guessing, is not that he's ridden more or less than his competitors, but that he's managed his time in the saddle better.

And the way he's done this, I'm somewhat speculating, is by adopting elements of reverse periodization.

The traditional approach to training requires, at first, longer intervals--some as long as two hours.  These intervals gradually shorten as the mesocycle progresses.  The reverse is true, I'm guessing, for Wiggins, if he has adopted elements of reverse periodization into his protocol.  That is, his critical intervals--the ones he's using as his training benchmarks--have gotten progressively longer as the mesocycle progresses.

Wiggins has stated that he worked on explosive power in his base period.  He also is being coached, as he said, by a swim coach, whose plan works sprinting and intensity into the base phase.  It also includes long hours at slow tempo, in which the purpose of maximization of efficiency--not the development of so-called "aerobic fitness."  And it also incorporates altitude training, which, by virtue of its thin air, requires the body to adapt to an oxygen-deprived environment (the idea is that this extra load leads the body to compensate by improving its oxygen-carrying and absorption system, but this is not exactly proven.)  So, here's another element of Wiggins' training--improvement of efficiency.

This is not the same as the traditional base period, and its focus on what is called "aerobic fitness," a concept Tim Noakes has argued is fairly meaningless (great cyclists, for instance have VO2s ranging from the mid 60s ml/kg/min to the low 90s, a variance that suggests low, if any, correlation between the ability of the lungs to pump oxygen and the ability of the legs to perform).

VO2 max is interesting, but as a factor in cycling performance it's almost useless.

On the other hand, EPO works, so there's something to be said for having a good oxygen carrying system (even if having a good ability to take in oxygen and pump out CO2 for your weight isn't that important).  So it isn't surprising that Wiggins has trained at altitude; it's his attempt to address what swimmers address through their focus on mechanical efficiency and their own training at altitude in Colorado Springs.  Wiggins' goal, I'm sure, has been to raise his power at a given heart rate:  how much power can my legs put out at a given constant peasure of exertion--heart rate?  Raising the efficiency of his oxygen carrying system through altitude training was surely a part of this goal.

So far, we've addressed the following elements of Wiggins training:

  1. Why it is like a swim program.
  2. Why a reverse periodization protocol enables a cconstantly high level of race fitness
  3. Why Wiggins has used training, rather than racing, as the primary builder of fitness.
  4. Wiggins use of training for explosive power in his base period.
  5. Why Wiggins uses altitude training
  6. How Wiggins manages the huge volume of his rides.

We haven't yet addressed why Wiggins spends a lot of time climbing and in the heat.  We'll do that in the next post.


Rollin' Polish said...

What you're referring to is not reverse periodization- in fact the concept of progressive overload yields this term somewhat of an oxymoron. Rahter, its the inability of most cyclist to understand what base training is really meant to be and is in many other endurance sports.

Base training is meant to simply remedy weaknesses in base fitness, neuromuscular strength, and provide preparation for subsequent periods or events. It can consist of almost anything depending on the rider, their power profile, event profile, and weaknesses. For 95% of cyclists, however, their aerobic economy and functional threshold power are naturally their most glaring weaknesses. With a background on the track, huge oxidative capacity, and already monstrous threshold, Wiggins does not really lack in this department. Moreover, his blood lactate and vo2 testing can help to determine where his lactate curve is weak thus allowing his team to pinpoint where he can best raise his economy. Normal riders have no idea where this is and just assume that more is better and, like you mentioned, time often prevents them from riding enough to raise this capacity as the pros do. This is why you see a lot of coaches and riders often talking about doing more threshold and vo2 max work during their base period than they previously thought was necessary. The whole 'burnout' by doing any intensity during winter revolves around people's inability to know how long, when, and what to do with regards to rides above tempo.

Dr. Inigo San Milan from Garmin said in an interview last season (I can't find it yet) that they test their rider's blood lactate on their tt bikes, a climb, and in a lab before the base season even starts and find the biological weaknesses in their rider's blood lactate curves and vo2 gas exchange tests. Then, they sit down with the rider's DS' and figure out what the rider lacked in races during their previous season and if any of it can be programmed into their training. Some of the riders (Hesjedal and Howes being the ones that I remember) reported that they ended up with programs that had them doing 20-25 hours/week during the winter, but a lot more intensity than seasons past. San Milan and the staff then use the available medical and performance metrics to monitor signs of fatigue and re-test consistently to determine what has changed and where to go next. Seems to have worked well enough for them.

The problem with Friels is that he is adopting a method of periodization that's about 30 years old. His version of linear periodization assumes the pyramid approach of building up energy systems, but that doesn't reflect how various systems work and interact. Do all the L2 LSD riding you want, but if your races don't rely on fat burning economy, it isn't a weak point in your profile, and you're going to need a decent 5 minute power for Battenkill or Morgantown in early April then you're going to be SOL if you aren't getting in a few blocks of decent top end work before then. It then makes sense to start with the race and work backwards to establish the length of the base period. After a person does that they have to have some kind of accurate record of their data and weaknesses to determine what needs the most work and when is the best time to work. The fact that most amateurs can always use more aerobic fitness tends to push the traditional pyramid model even if it doesn't necessarily make sense.

Rollin' Polish said...

Amateurs also think with a one track mind with regards to planning whereas pros have to be nimble. Wiggins can sit down and design his plan, train, tweak when needed and keep working as the results dictate. He tests often, races less often, and spends his time doing the work. Many amateurs write a rigid plan on November/December and follow it to a T whereas pros will take time off after race blocks or push through depending on how they feel, take time off after an illness or bad crash, or adjust their race schedule depending on their results. It helps to be able to think and react fast and not be so rigid just because the document says to be.

For Wiggins, his weakness is explosive power. He never says specifically what that is, but considering he comes from the track its most likely sub 4 minute anaerobic efforts, sprints, and anything that uses the CP system. Most of these efforts are fairly demanding and take quite a bit of recovery time and thus are often placed into the base period because there aren't very many A races, there's ample recovery time, and it allows a while to focus on the area and approaches used to build it. In addition, most pros are taking very little time off in the off-season now, but they ramp up volume a lot slower and take more periodized rest. The trend towards numerous training camps is also increasing with many camps as early as November now. Theoretically speaking this gives Wiggins a ~3-4 month 'base period' where he can create his basic aerobic strength, work on his energy economy through traditional LSD rides, and hit his weaknesses without being dull for any of his target events.

Wiggins also knows what the Tour requires in the TT and what the climbs are like this year. None of the stages are that punchy or hard and the TTs are long. From a planning perspective this means that he will need to develop his functional threshold power, energy economic, and oxidative capacity by the start of the Tour because the principle of specificity dictates to train like you're going to have to race. Its not reverse periodization, but hitting what comes next in the cycle. With early season races under his belt Wiggins will gain some top end, leg speed, pack riding time, and be able to have accurate functional data to use to plan his later blocks. If you recall Wiggins actually won a sprint finish this year so he can probably determine that his dedication to explosiveness might have worked and thus move it down on his list of priorities.

So, his build was different than normal because his weaknesses are different. Wiggins' background on the track shows that he has incredible 5m power, but if you go back and watch his road performances he lacked the few percent he needed to make him a diesel engine climber that can rely on just setting a ridiculous tempo to put his rivals into trouble. He can't resort to his weakness, attacking, so that becomes probably one of his most important strengths as he comes into racing. The altitude helps build up that strength and his build up hasn't been irrational- its very linear and controlled to get to that peak moment.

We also have to think about the actual training load of Wiggins' altitude training sessions vs. racing. With riders clocking up 300-400 TSS/day in the Giro, Wiggins' training might have been hard, but its nowhere near as physically demanding as a 3 week Tour.

I digressed quite a bit, but he's not doing anything differently in terms of periodization, but rather thinking about it the way it was intended to be thought about. Its been slow to happen in cycling, but distance runners have been working in threshold runs, sprints, plyos, weights, etc. into their base training for a long time. In addition, a rider can't expect to gain a ton of 1m power or sprint snap if they don't actually do either from August until March.

Kevin Cross said...

Definitely valuable points, and I mostly agree with you.

The term "reverse periodization" isn't mine; it comes from an Australian strength and conditioning coach, Ian King. King's version of periodization--and how it differs from Tudor Bumpa's--emphasizes intensity (or, in the case of strength training, fewer sets and reps) as the way to improve even strength endurance. What's implied by "reverse periodization" is the strange correlation between training with intensity on the bike and improved endurance. There's also even a strange correlation between 1 rep max and FTP--which is crazy!

An example of this: doing 1-2 minute intervals has been shown in several studies to improve FTP (Watts/kg/60min) more than doing 60 minute intervals! This is why the training of competitive Crossfit athletes often employs maximal strength training rather than their circuits; because, strangely, the best way to improve how many times you can clean 50kg is to improve your 1-rep max at clean.

Bumpa's version--and, to some extent, Friel's--implies, as you do, that there's something to the type of training where you ride long and "teach your body to burn fat." It's based on the traditional notion of aerobic fitness, which, I argue, is ill defined and not useful.

My point is this--while reverse periodization as a label may be oxymoronic, reverse periodization as a variant of periodization is a valid approach to structuring your mesocycle. While there may be some benefits of L1,L2, it won't improve your FTP as much as focused training at L4,L5.

With that said, training for Grand Tours is a whole, different ball game.